While we offer the Great Thanksgiving every Sunday at St. John’s, last Sunday was especially great as we celebrated 150 years of ministry in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. It was a joy to have our bishop, Marc Andrus, with us to preside and preach. The lessons were for the anniversary of the dedication of a church. I was especially struck by Bishop Marc’s comments on the reading from Genesis 28:10-17:
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Bishop Marc noted that Jacob is a collective figure – he is Israel, the people of God. Thus, we can see this passage as a communal vision representing the hope for us collectively to become “gateways to heaven,” liminal or “thin” spaces where the presence of God becomes palpable. Our buildings are not the house of God spoken of here, but rather the people of God, the living stones built into a spiritual house. (I Peter 2:4). It is the quality of our common life that shows forth God in Christ – or does not.
While each of us promises in baptism to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ” and to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” we do so as microcosms of the cosmic Christ, as parts of the whole Body of Christ. Each of us, individually, is a collective figure. When we show forth Christ to others, we are reflecting back to them the truth of who we all are together – surely the Lord is in this place, in us (plural), and we did not know it!
We are, as St. Paul said, ambassadors for Christ. What we represent to others as Christians is not ourselves, but the presence of God in Christ formed by our experience in community. Thus, in baptism we first promise to continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. It is only together that we become Christ.
It occurred to me while Bishop Marc was preaching that one of the functions of episcope is to symbolize our being collective figures. The bishop is a collective figure, a symbol of the Church’s unity. But this is not the sole purview of the bishop. Rather, he or she points to the reality of this representative function in the ministry of all the baptized. We all serve to mirror God to each other.
This is no doubt why the bishop can be such a polarizing, as well as a unifying, figure. We watch our bishop being arrested for civil disobedience protesting the Iraq War, and some say – “Hey, that is not who we are!” His picture shows up on a blog at a rally for immigrants’ rights and we wonder, “Is that what we are called to be about?” He speaks at a Board of Supervisors hearing to challenge Sutter Health’s plans to shut down St. Luke Hospital’s services to the poor, and some question, “Is the Church just being used by the unions?” He gathers a group of clergy to address environmental racism in the Bay View-Hunter’s Point neighborhood, and some mutter quietly, “Those people aren’t Episcopalians, why should we care?”
Collective figures sometimes reflect judgment back to us. As we struggle to see ourselves in them, we wonder whether they, or we, have failed to show forth Christ. That struggle can result in polarization, or it can become the occasion to foster a deeper sense of unity through (self) critical encounter in community. Some believe that the bishop should be “minding the store,” serving as a diocesan administrator. When bishops are safely ensconced in ecclesiastical bureaucracy, they are far less likely to hold up before us an uncomfortable mirror. I prefer my bishop to be a “Jacob” rather than a manager, a collective figure challenging us to see ourselves as part of the whole, as Christ. Only then can we become the “gate of heaven” for the sake of the world.